Thursday afternoon, my mother found me in the fields and said that I was needed in the garden. I happily unstrapped my picking sack and left the other laborers lost in the cotton. We walked to the house, both of us relieved that the workday was over.
"We need to visit the Latchers," she said along the way. "I worry about them so. They might be hungry, you know."
The Latchers had a garden, though not much of one. I doubted if anyone was going hungry. They certainly didn't have a crumb to spare, but starvation was unheard of in Craighead County. Even the poorest of the sharecroppers managed to grow tomatoes and cucumbers. Every farm family had a few chickens laying eggs.
But my mother was determined to see Libby so that the rumors could be confirmed or denied.
As we entered our garden, I realized what my mother was doing. If we hurried, and made it to the Latchers' before quitting time, then the parents and all those kids would be in the fields. Libby, if she was in fact pregnant, would be hanging around the house, most likely alone. She would have no choice but to come out and accept our vegetables. We could blindside her, nail her with Christian goodness while her protectors were away. It was a brilliant plan.
Under the strict supervision of my mother, I began picking tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, butter beans, corn-almost everything in the garden. "Get that small red tomato there, Luke, to your right," she said. "No, no, those peas can wait." And, "No, that cucumber isn't quite ready."
Though she often gathered the produce herself, she preferred to oversee matters. A balance to the garden could be maintained if she could keep her distance, survey the entire plot, and with the eye of an artist, direct my efforts, or my father's, in removing the food from the vines.
I hated the garden, but at that moment I hated the fields even more. Anything was better than picking cotton.
As I reached for an ear of corn, I saw something between the stalks that stopped me cold. Beyond the garden was a small, shaded strip of grass, too narrow to play catch on, and thus good for nothing. Next to it was the east wall of our house, the side away from any traffic. On the west side was the kitchen door, the parking place for our truck, the footpaths that led to the barn, the outbuildings, and the fields. Everything happened on the west side; nothing on the cast.
"A Painted House"
At the corner, facing the garden and out of view of everyone, someone had painted a portion of the bottom board. Painted it white. The rest of the house was the same pale brown it had always been, the same drab color of old, sturdy oak planks.
"What is it, Luke?" my mother asked. She was never in a hurry in the garden, because it was her sanctuary, but today she was planning an ambush, and time was crucial.
"I don't know," I said, still frozen.
She stepped beside me and peered through the cornstalks that bordered and secluded her garden, and when her eyes settled upon the painted board, she, too, stood still.
The paint was thick at the corner, but thinned as the board ran toward the rear of the house. It was obviously a work in progress. Someone was painting our house.
"It's Trot," she said softly, a smile forming at the corners of her mouth.
I hadn't thought of him, hadn't yet had time to consider a culprit, but it immediately became clear that he was the painter. Who else could it be? Who else loitered around the front yard all day with nothing to do while the rest of us slaved in the fields? Who else would work at such a pitiful pace? Who else would be dense enough to paint another man's house without permission?
And it had been Trot who'd yelled at Hank to stop torturing me about our little unpainted, sodbuster house. Trot had come to my rescue.
But where would Trot get the money to buy paint? And why would he do it in the first place? Oh, there were dozens of questions.
She took a step back, then left the garden. I followed her to the corner of the house, where we examined the paint. We could smell it there, and it appeared to be sticky. She surveyed the front yard. Trot was nowhere to be seen.
"What're we gonna do?" I asked.
"Nothing, at least not now."
"You gonna tell anybody?"
"I'll talk to your father about it. In the meantime, let's keep it a secret."
"You told me secrets were bad for boys."
"They're bad when you keep them from your parents."
We filled two straw baskets with vegetables and loaded them into the truck. My mother drove about once a month. She could certainly handle Pappy's truck, but she could not relax behind the wheel. She gripped it fiercely, pumped the clutch and brakes, then turned the key. We jerked and lurched in reverse, and even laughed as the old truck slowly got turned around. As we left, I saw Trot lying under the Spruill truck, watching us from behind a rear tire.
The frolicking stopped minutes later when we got to the river. "Hang on, Luke," she said as she shifted into low and leaned over the wheel, her eyes wild with fear. Hang on to what? It was a one-lane bridge with no guardrails. If she drove off, then we'd both drown.
"You can do it, Mom," I said without much conviction.
"Of course I can," she said. I'd crossed the bridge with her before, and it was always an adventure. We crept over it, both afraid to look, down. We didn't breathe until we hit dirt on the other side.
"Good job, Mom," I said.
"Nothin' to it," she said, finally exhaling.
At first I couldn't see any Latchers in the fields, but as we approached the house, I saw a cluster of straw hats deep in the cotton, at the far end of their crop. I couldn't tell if they heard us, but they did not stop picking. We parked close to the front porch as the dust settled around the truck. Before we could get out, Mrs. Latcher was coming down the front steps, wiping her hands nervously on a rag of some sort. She seemed to be talking to herself and appeared very worried.
"Hello, Mrs. Chandler," she said, looking off. I never knew why she didn't use my mother's first name. She was older and had at least six more children.
"Hello, Darla. We've brought some vegetables."
The two women were facing each other. "I'm so glad you're here," Mrs. Latcher said, her voice very anxious.
"What's the matter?"
Mrs. Latcher glanced at me, but only for a second. "I need you -help. It's Libby. I think she's about to have a baby."
"A baby?" my mother said, as if she hadn't a clue.
"Yes. I think she's in labor."
"Then let's call the doctor."
"Oh no. We can't do that. No one can know about this. No one. It has to be kept quiet."
I had moved to the rear of the truck, and I was crouching down a bit so Mrs. Latcher couldn't see me. That way, I figured she'd talk more. Something big was about to happen, and I didn't want to miss any of it.
"We're so ashamed," she said, her voice cracking. "She won't tell us who the father is, and right now I don't care. I just want the baby to get here."
"But you need a doctor."
"No ma'am. Nobody can know about this. If the doctor comes, then the whole county'll know. You gotta keep it quiet, Mrs. Chandler. Can you promise me?"
The poor woman was practically crying. She was desperate to keep a secret that had been the talk of Black Oak for months.
"A Painted House"
"Let me see her," my mother said without answering the question, and the women started for the house. "Luke, you stay here at the truck," she said over her shoulder.
As soon as they disappeared inside, I walked around the house and peeked into the first window I saw. It was a tiny living room with old, dirty mattresses on the floor. At the next window, I heard their voices. I froze and listened. The fields were behind me.
"Libby, this is Mrs. Chandler," Mrs. Latcher was saying. "She's here to help you."
Libby whimpered something I couldn't understand. She seemed to be in great pain. Then I heard her say, "I'm so sorry."
"It's gonna be okay," my mother said. "When did the labor start?"
"About an hour ago," Mrs. Latcher replied.
"I'm so scared, Mama," Libby said, much louder. Her voice was pure terror. Both ladies tried to calm her.
Now that I was no longer a novice on the subject of female anatomy, I was quite anxious to have a look at a pregnant girl. But she sounded too close to the window, and if I got caught peeking in, my father would beat me for a week. An unauthorized view of a woman in labor was undoubtedly a sin of the greatest magnitude. I might even be stricken blind on the spot.
But I couldn't help myself. I crouched and slinked just under the windowsill. I removed my straw hat and was easing upward when a heavy clod of dirt landed less than two feet from my head. It crashed onto the side of the house with a boom, rattling the rickety boards and scaring the women to the point of making them yell. Bits of dirt splattered and hit the side of my face. I hit the ground and rolled away from the window. Then I scrambled to my feet and looked at the fields.
Percy Latcher was not far away, standing between two rows of cotton, holding another clod of dirt with one hand, and pointing at me with another.
"It's your boy," a voice said.
I looked at the window and got a glimpse of Mrs. Latcher's head. One more look at Percy, and I raced like a scalded dog back to the pickup. I jumped into the front seat, rolled up the window, and waited for my mother.
Percy disappeared into the fields. It would be quitting time soon, and I wanted to leave before the rest of the Latchers drifted in.
A couple of toddlers appeared on the porch, both of them naked, a boy and a girl, and I wondered what they thought of their big sister having yet another one. They just stared at me.
My mother came out in a hurry, Mrs. Latcher on her heels, talking rapidly as they walked to the truck.
"I'll get Ruth," my mother said, meaning Gran.
"Please do, and hurry," Mrs. Latcher said.
"Ruth's done this many times."
"Please get her. And please don't tell anyone. Can we trust you, Mrs. Chandler?"
My mother was opening the door, trying to get inside. "Of course you can."
"We're so ashamed," Mrs. Latcher said, wiping tears. "Please don't tell anyone."
"It's goin' to be all right, Darla," my mother said, turning the key. "I'll be back in half an hour."
We lunged into reverse, and after a few bolts and stops, we were turned around and leaving the Latcher place. She was driving much faster, and this kept her attention, mostly.
"Did you see Libby Latcher?" she finally asked.
"No ma'am," I said quickly and firmly. I knew the question was coming, and I was ready with the truth.
"Are you sure?"
"What were you doin' beside the house?"
"I was just walkin' around when Percy threw a dirt clod at me. That's what hit the house. It wasn't my fault, it was Percy's." My words were fast and sure, and I know she wanted to believe me. More important matters were on her mind.
We stopped at the bridge. She shifted into low, held her breath, and again said, "Hang on, Luke."
Gran was in the backyard, at the pump drying her face and hands and about to start supper. I had to run to keep up with my mother.
"We have to go to the Latchers'," she said. "That girl is in labor, and her mother wants you to deliver it."
"Oh, dear," Gran said, her weary eyes suddenly alive with adventure. "So she's really pregnant."
"Very much so. She's been in labor for over an hour."
I was listening hard and thoroughly enjoying my involvement, when suddenly and for no apparent reason, both women turned and stared at me. "Luke, go to the house," my mother said rather sternly, and began pointing, as if I didn't know where the house was.
"What'd I do?" I asked, wounded.
"Just go," she said, and I began to slink away. Arguing would get me nowhere. They resumed their conversation in hushed tones, and I was at the back porch when my mother called to me.
"Luke, run to the fields and get your father! We need him!"
"And hurry!" Gran said. She was thrilled with the prospect of doctoring on a real patient.
I didn't want to go back to the fields, and I would've argued but for the fact that Libby Latcher was having a baby at that very moment. I said, "Yes ma'am," and sprinted past them.
"A Painted House"
My father and Pappy were at the trailer, weighing cotton for the last time that day. It was almost five, and the Spruills had gathered with their heavy sacks. The Mexicans were nowhere to be seen.
I managed to pull my father aside and explain the situation. He said something to Pappy, and we trotted back to the house. Gran was gathering supplies-rubbing alcohol, towels, painkillers, bottles of nasty remedies that would make Libby forget about child birthing. She was arranging her arsenal on the kitchen table, and I had never seen her move so fast.
"Get cleaned up!" she said sharply to my father. "You'll drive us there. It might take some time." I could tell he was less than excited about getting dragged into this, but he wasn't about to argue with his mother.
"I'll get cleaned up, too," I said.
"You're not going anywhere," my mother said to me. She was at the kitchen sink, slicing a tomato. Pappy and I would get leftovers for supper, in addition to the usual platter of cucumbers and tomatoes.
They left in a rush, my father driving, my mother wedged between him and Gran, the three of them off to rescue Libby. I stood on the front porch and watched them speed away, a cloud of dust boiling behind the truck until it stopped at the river. I really wanted to go.
Supper would be beans and cold biscuits. Pappy hated leftovers. He thought the women should've prepared supper before tending to the Latchers, but then, he was opposed to sending them food in the first place.
"Don't know why both women had to go," he mumbled as he sat down. "They're as curious as cats, aren't they, Luke? They can't wait to get over there, and see that pregnant girl."
"Yes sir," I said.
He blessed the food with a quick prayer, and we ate in silence.
"Who are the Cardinals playin'?" he asked.
"You wanna listen to it?"
"Sure." We listened to the game every night. What else was there to do?
We cleared the table and placed our dirty dishes in the sink. Pappy would never consider washing them; that was work for the women. After dark, we sat on the porch in our usual positions and waited for Harry Caray and the Cardinals. The air was heavy and still dreadfully hot.
"How long does it take to have a baby?" I asked.
"Depends," Pappy said from his swing. That was all he said, and after waiting long enough, I asked, "Depends on what?"
"Oh, lots of things. Some babies pop right out, others take days."
"How long did I take?"
He thought for a moment. "Don't guess I remember. First babies usually take longer."
"Were you around?"
"Nope. I was on a tractor." The arrival of babies was not a subject Pappy cared to dwell on, and the conversation lagged.
I saw Tally ease away from the front yard and disappear into the darkness. The Spruills were settling in; their cooking fire was just about out.
The Reds scored four runs in the top of the first inning. Pappy got so upset he went to bed. I turned off the radio and sat on the porch, watching for Tally. Before long, I heard Pappy snoring.